In the world we live in filled with terrorism and the heightened need for security the novels of author John le Carré seem to be almost required reading. Because of this Hollywood has turned its eye back towards le Carré’s 21st novel for source material. This time it is A Most Wanted Man that is being adapted for the big screen. A true story about the life of Muslim Turk named Murat Kurnaz who was a legal resident of Germany. He was arrested in Pakistan and jailed at several places by the Americans including Guantanamo Bay.
Filmed in Hamburg, Germany and directed by Anton Corbijn (The American) this spy thriller aptly depicts the realities of our post-9/11 world. Spying and the gathering of information have taken on even more important roles. It is this type of background that makes A Most Wanted Man so realistic and gripping. In the very capable hands of Corbijn and lead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last leading performance (he will be in the upcoming Hunger Games films in a supporting nature) before his death in February of this year, the whole thing has a rather gloomy look and feel to it. No one is happy about the state of the world as it is, but they go on about it as best they can.
Entering Germany via the port city of Hamburg in the dead of night, Chechen-Russian Muslim Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) emerges from the water. He proceeds to try and stay hidden in plain sight. On the street one day he runs (literally) into a fellow Muslim, she takes pity on him and brings him to her apartment that she shares with her son. The son makes contact with young lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams – The Notebook, Mean Girls), who specializes in human rights cases like this.
At the same time German espionage expert, Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote, Doubt), while investigating the suspected funding of Muslim terrorism by a well-respected intellectual named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi – Zero Dark Thirty, The Kite Runner), has his antenna up in regards to the wanted and so-called terrorist. Using his small staff, that includes his right hand Irna Frey (Nina Hoss – Barbara), who never seem to sleep or miss anything that is going on in the city, Gunther attempts to get his hands on Issa before the CIA led by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright – from television’s House of Cards) or another division of the German secret service do.
Issa tells her of his history of imprisonment in Russia and that he cannot go back there. His scarred body is enough proof for Annabel of the torture he underwent. Issa tells her that he is looking for a Mr. Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe – The English Patient, Spider-Man), a man his father said would help him if he ever needed it. Brue turns out to run a large bank in Hamburg and with a letter from Issa’s father to Brue’s father and a key he is convinced that Issa is who he says he is. Much to everyone’s shock Brue tells Issa that he has 10 million dollars in an account for him at the bank. Issa claims to not want the money as he feels that anything his father had to do with is tainted. Instead he says he wants to right his past wrongs by donating it to Muslim charities headed by Abdullah. Is he really just being benevolent or is he part of the terrorist ring?
The stakes are high and the authorities are closing in on every side. Annabel is in over her head, but is blinded by the idea of saving Issa. As such she overestimates her own abilities and underestimates the reach of Gunther. The walls are closing in around Issa and his young lawyer. It is only a matter of time before he is back in the hands of the authorities. The only question remaining is whose hands?
An interesting mix of American and European actors makes up this talented cast. But make no mistake about it the film belongs to Hoffman. Though it might seem like Issa is the main character due to his overshadowing performance it is Hoffman who is the pulse behind it all. His brand of intensity serves his gloomy character very well indeed. Without going into a great deal of his backstory through his slumping shoulders and world weary posture Hoffman is able to convey that this man has a lot of pressure on his shoulders and cannot, in multiple respects, afford another screw up. He also manages to make us believe that Gunther’s intelligence is enough to carry him on to victory. Gunther does not need or often resort to violence as his brain is what elevates him over those he is trying to capture. It is a performance that reminds the viewer that his is a talent that doesn’t come down the pipe very often.
Don’t take that to mean that he is the only reason to see the film. The supporting cast around Philip Seymour Hoffman is more than adequate. Because of her string of poor film choices and good looks we all tend to underestimate the acting ability of Rachel McAdams. In this film she has an opportunity to remind us of it. Willem Dafoe, while it is a small role, turns in a performance that makes you sit up and take notice without being hammy. Robin Wright can do the smiling yet scheming character in her sleep. And the German actors, Hoss, Franz Hartwig and Daniel Bruhl, all are note perfect despite having to speak in English.
In Corbijn’s capable hands the film at the same time has an old fashioned spy film (there is definitely some nods to spy films from the 70s like All the President’s Men in this one) feel to it as well as a completely modern perspective. He does this by focusing on the characters rather than the details of the spy stuff. Corbijn also understands that the way of this sort looks is also very important. To add to the gravity of the situation everything is washed out with grays and cold blues. Our eyes lead us down the story path Corbijn wants to take us. He does all this without resorting to clichés that are usually rampant in this genre of film.
All the tension in the film is achieved without one car blowing up or nary a gunfight. A le Carré story relies on tautness creating by the situation or potential situation rather than violence. A smart story with several twists that actually work, A Most Wanted Man is a cat and mouse game that you won’t want to end. The emphasis is on mood and the cerebral nature of modern spy business.